The dismay of the Europeans at the modalities of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan has revived the debate on the need for a European army. On the one hand, voices in favor of “strategic autonomy” claim that the fall of Kabul should serve as a wake-up call, on the other, their opponents believe that there is no existential threat justifying the creation. of a military force.
The European troops still present in Afghanistan had no choice but to emulate the American troops. Despite the desire of some of them to stay in the country to prevent the Taliban from taking power, they had to resolve to leave the country. The military engagement of US allies in NATO, as well as the evacuation of their civilians, depended on US logistics and air support. A situation which revived the old debate on the creation of a European army.
“Afghanistan has demonstrated that our delays in strategic autonomy come at a cost and that the only way forward is to combine our forces and strengthen not only our capabilities, but also our will to act,” he said. the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, Thursday 2 September, following a meeting in Slovenia of European Union (EU) defense ministers on the creation of a European rapid reaction force.
Josep Borrell is hoping to get the green light from member states to build a 5,000-strong force at a new defense meeting on November 16.
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Even German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer tweeted Thursday that “coalitions of willing countries” could help manage future crises. AKK, as she is nicknamed, had yet written in November 2020 a column, published on Politico, in which she affirmed that “the illusions about a European strategic autonomy must end”. Stressing that “Europeans will not be able to replace America in its crucial role of guarantor of security”.
French President Emmanuel Macron reacted strongly, affirming his “deep” disagreement with AKK, while “strategic autonomy” – military, economic and technological – is at the heart of his vision for Europe.
During a meeting at the Elysee Palace with the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, Tuesday, August 30, Emmanuel Macron once again insisted on this point. The two leaders issued a joint statement urging the EU to develop its “strategic autonomy” in order to be able to assume “more responsibility for its security and defense”.
Weak European defense budgets
Will the Afghan debacle finally push Europeans to move from intentions to actions? It has been nearly a quarter of a century since the failed proposals for a “rapid reaction force” have followed one another. Several European leaders had already mentioned the need for a European army at the time when the war in the former Yugoslavia, at the end of the 1990s, was raging at the gates of the EU.
“[L’UE] must have the capacity to carry out autonomous actions, supported by credible military forces “, one can read in a joint communiqué, dating from 1998, of the French President Jacques Chirac and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair. A quote that could very well resume today word for word Emmanuel Macron.
In response to the Franco-British appeal, the EU decided in 1999 to create a contingent of 50,000 to 60,000 soldiers that could be deployed in sixty days. Far from the announced objectives, this project ended in 2007, with the setting up of two “tactical groups” of 1,500 men each from all member countries. For lack of political will, this project has stagnated for ten years.
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“Europeans must improve the capabilities of their armed forces,” said Rafael Loss, an expert on defense issues at the European Council for International Relations, a pan-European think tank promoting a strong European foreign policy. “For crisis management in particular, Europeans lack essential tools, such as strategic transport planes to quickly move men and equipment, or satellites capable of providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance before and during the deployment of troops, ”he adds.
Another major obstacle to the continent’s “strategic autonomy” is the low budgets allocated to defense among European countries. All NATO member countries except the United States have increased their defense spending since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Nonetheless, the organization estimates that only 9 of its 28 countries members this year achieved the spending target of 2% of GDP set by NATO.
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As the largest economy in the EU, Germany has thus devoted only 1.53% of its GDP to its defense budget, an increase of less than 0.5% since 2015 for an already under-resourced army.
“Germany has increased its defense spending since the annexation of Crimea, but it is not enough and Berlin is unlikely to achieve by 2024 the target set by NATO” , says Claudia Major, a specialist in these issues at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “At the end of the day, it all depends on the perception of the threat,” she sums up. “Countries like Germany don’t spend a lot of money in this area because they don’t feel threatened.”
On the other hand, and not surprisingly, the three Baltic States and Poland, which share a border and historically tumultuous relations with Russia, are among the nine European countries that are NATO members to achieve the spending target.
Towards missions outside the European framework
In this context, the distance between Europe and Afghanistan suggests that nothing will change within the EU. “The fall of Kabul should not change much the support of the European population for an increase in defense spending, says Rafael Loss. Especially since most Europeans gave little importance to Afghanistan during the period. of the last decade. European leaders will therefore have to find other arguments to convince their constituents. “
Supporters of a European armed force operating independently of the United States will also have to convince Washington’s staunch allies.
“It will be difficult to convince certain Member States that European defense can be as effective in terms of security as what NATO and the United States provide”, underlines Richard Whitman, professor in international relations at the University of Kent, pointing to the Baltic States and Poland.
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Especially since many disagreements exist within the EU concerning the states posing a threat. Russia, for example, poses an existential threat to the Baltic countries, while Germany sees it as a major energy partner.
With such divisions, future joint military actions are more likely to rely on “coalitions of willing countries” for very specific missions. In addition to bypassing the unanimous vote of member states or even the need for a simple majority to approve military action, operating outside European bodies would also allow the UK, which has the continent’s largest defense budget, to take part in operations.
The UK’s participation is essential for European strategic autonomy, experts say. “Carrying out missions like those carried out by NATO and ensuring the defense of the European continent would probably be impossible without the United Kingdom,” said Shashank Joshi, defense specialist at the weekly The Economist.
Despite the current tensions between London and Brussels, several voices in the British Parliament share the idea that Europe should not depend militarily on the United States. The United Kingdom will therefore want to “cooperate in the long term with the EU on defense and security issues,” says the columnist.
Translated from English by Romain Brunet. The original article can be found here.